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Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini announced Saturday that five walk-on teammates will go on scholarship - Brett Maher, Spencer Long, Justin Jackson, Justin Blatchford and Seung Hoon Choi. By almost any standard you want to measure it, Choi is the most compelling walk-on story in the history of University of Nebraska football.
Maher and Long are the two most prominent walk-ons on the 2012 team, and Pelini informed both last month that they are now on official Nebraska football scholarships. The surprise factor for that is an absolute zero because Maher was the 2011 first-team All-Big Ten kicker, and Long is a preseason first-team All-Big Ten choice after starting every game last year at offensive right guard.
In my book, Choi replaces the Anthony Steels Story. More than three decades ago, Steels walked on from Zaragosa, Spain, where he played high school football at a military base for a coach who was a native of Bellevue, Neb. That coach may have been on another continent, but he had the vision to contact Tom Osborne and several other schools, urging them to offer Steels a scholarship. Nebraska was the only school to respond, and even though the Huskers did not have a scholarship available, they promised Steels that he would get a fair shot to earn one if he walked on. Steels ended up starting at wingback and caught a 25-yard touchdown pass in Nebraska's 22-15 1981 Orange Bowl loss to national champion Clemson. He then went on to play four years in the NFL and is the only Husker ever to sing the National Anthem at Memorial Stadium.
Believe it or not, the Choi Story trumps the Steels Story in multiples for one simple reason. Steels grew up around Americans who spoke English, and as a second-semester eighth-grader who came to Lincoln from Seoul, South Korea, Choi spoke no English. Nevertheless, his parents encouraged him to move and live with his uncle, a researcher at UNL.
Stay the Course, Learn the Language, Survive
Unfortunately, Choi's uncle left Lincoln before he ever arrived, so he lived in an apartment with his sister and five cousins. They moved 13 times in three years. In a lot of ways, Choi was a sad kid and a lost soul. He begged his mother to let him move back to South Korea, but his parents knew best. They wanted him to stay the course, learn the language and survive so that one day he might thrive. And that's what he's done to reach the status he now holds - a senior starter for the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
The N-Sider had a productive interview with Choi, and we will share that in the coming week, but let the record show that he is articulate, funny, loyal, hard-working and determined to do his part, so Nebraska can show signs of its glory days when "The Pipeline" laid the groundwork and set the tone for a highly physical offense.
Seung Hoon Choi is 6-foot-2 and 295 pounds. On a daily basis, he's one of the strongest men in Nebraska's fabled strength and conditioning facility. He inherited that passion from his father, who lifted aggressively while competing in collegiate judo in South Korea.
Sang Ho Choi taught Seung Hoon Choi the benefits of weightlifting. Once his son moved to America and attended Lincoln Christian, he would lift at school during the day and then wind up in another lifting session at the YMCA that night. Lifting and strength are major factors in Choi's success. Husker teammates, in fact, have been known to stop and watch how easily and how often Choi can bench 400 pounds. They also know how much his incredible strength shows up on practice film and game film.
Weight Room: Front Door to Choi's Success
Nebraska defensive tackle Chase Rome calls Choi a freak and describes him as a "ridiculously, ridiculously strong guy." The weight room, of course, has been the front door to Nebraska football for a lot of walk-ons who became Lifter of the Year. Many were ridiculously strong, but Choi may be the first to get a second "ridiculous" in his overall resume.
No wonder Choi started six games at left guard last fall, and really, who's to say that he can't be All-Big Ten just like Long, a fellow walk-on?
The Choi Story is unique, but it is no bigger deal than the other four Husker walk-ons who saw their dreams come true tbefore the season-opener. All five walk-ons share obvious aspects in the successful pursuit of their dreams. First, they've connected their dream to their inner self because their purpose has been translated into performance. They also came face-to-face with that frightening expression we all know and understand - fear of failure. Somehow, though, they fought their way through it, stayed on course and are reaping the rewards.
In the process, all five begin the 2012 season with a strong belief that they're following their true calling. Whether any one of them becomes a captain is almost moot because they are already considered strong leaders and therefore fitting role models for everyone who has to knock heads with them every day in practice.
Walk-Ons Can Help Lead the Charge in 2012
Dreaming big opens doors, pushes limits and excites everyone about new possibilities. Five walk-ons now collecting scholarship checks are well equipped to help lead the charge for a 2012 team that truly wants to leave its mark on Nebraska football.
Over the last 50 years, the Huskers have won more games in Division I college football than any other NCAA school, but they have not won a conference championship in 12 seasons. This team, with these inspiring walk-ons and plenty of other ones just like them, can do something really special this fall. They can bring Nebraska back to the championship level.
Surely, that journey can't be any more difficult than the one that Seung Hoon Choi took to get here. I mean, seeing, tasting and experiencing America is a high and noble goal when you arrive in the United States in 2004 and can't speak a word of English, even though you feel like you're understanding what people are trying to tell you.
When he came to Nebraska eight years ago, Choi's favorite and only two English words were "yes" and "football" so I ask him Friday afternoon in the hallway if they are still his favorite words today.
"Yes," he answered.
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Voices from Husker Nation
In the fall of 2008, 51 true freshmen joined Coach Bo Pelini for his first season as Nebraska’s head football coach. Some have graduated and moved on. Others have left the program for one reason or another, but 24 of those 51 freshmen are still on the team. Thirteen of the remaining 24 started out in the program as scholarship recruits. Eleven began as walk-ons. Four of those have been given scholarships by Coach Pelini for the upcoming season, and three more (Graham Stoddard, Jase Dean and Kenny Anderson) will be on scholarship for the last semester of their fifth year in the program. According to my calculations, four of those ’08 freshmen remain in the program without scholarships – linebacker Matt Manninger from Creighton Prep, tight end Connor McDermott from Creighton Prep, plus wide receivers KC Hyland from Lincoln Pius X and Taylor Dixon of Wauneta-Palisade. Someday, maybe during the week of Nebraska’s last home game this season, I would like to see a story about these four guys on Huskers.com. Gene Finke, Beatrice, Nebraska
Reading the article about Choi on the Husker athletic web site was impressive. I haven't felt Nebraska soil under my feet for 32 years, but I'm as excited for the Huskers as ever! I came to Nebraska in '69 during the Devaney years, so yes I'm a die-hard Husker fan. I moved back to Texas in '80, and I love the fact that even here in Austin, I can watch the games with fellow Husker fans at several places. Go Big Red! Gary 'Bubba' Carpenter, Austin, Texas
I was surprised Maher and Long were not put on scholarship in the spring. Long was even listed in the latest Sports Illustrated as a top offensive player with Rex Burkhead. I believe every starter on the team should be on scholarship as soon as possible. Jim Basham, Plano, Texas